Publication: The Sun travel pages
The Space Coast is a blast
This was a two-page travel feature written following a visit to the so-called Space Coast of Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Centre and Cape Canaveral.
AFTER a final safety check, the cockpit doors are clamped shut and we are ready for launch. NASA's experimental X-77 space plane races down the runway and rockets us into a clear blue sky.
We rendezvous with a Space Shuttle and together the two spacecraft hit 18,000mph as we soar to our destination - the new International Space Station.
But there is barely time to enjoy the view before we make a fiery descent to touchdown. I stagger from my seat feeling shaken but high on adrenaline - for I've glimpsed the future.
Of course, my journey into space was pretend, aboard a simulator that brilliantly mimics a real orbital adventure. But it took place at a holiday destination where the adventures are real - Florida's Space Coast.
The Sunshine State is famous for white-knuckle rides at Disney World and Universal Studios. But this is no theme park. The Space Coast is the launch pad for expeditions to the final frontier, including Man's greatest ever journey - to the moon.
The major attraction is the vast Kennedy Space Centre which covers 84,000 acres of land, swamp and waterways. Despite the fact that this is a working spaceport, visitors are welcome.
At the main visitor complex is a rocket garden, an open air display of historic craft that lifted America into the space age. An Imax cinema shows movies taken in space on screens five storeys high. It is the next best thing to being up there.
A highlight is meeting a real astronaut - I got to shake hands with Shuttle veteran Jay Apt (see photo). Among the many attractions are a life-size,walk-through Shuttle and a play dome where children can explore a space station. A giant memorial to all the astronauts who have lost their lives in training or on missions brings you down to earth.
The visitor complex is the first of four main destinations on a tour of the space centre.
Most impressive is the Apollo/Saturn V centre - an audio- visual treat that relives the moon shots. In one theatre the original mission control room comes alive to recreate the excitement of Apollo 8's launch.
In the next theatre the first moon landing by Apollo 11 is replayed. Your heart lurches as the Lunar Module overshoots its intended landing site and comes critically close to running out of fuel. The Eagle has landed - just!
Step into the Saturn V plaza where you can grab a blast-food lunch surrounded by a genuine giant moon rocket, lunar lander and Apollo command module.
Then visit the International Space Station Centre where you can see modules being prepared to be carried to that great building site in the sky.
Stop off at the LC-39 observation gantry. It is as close as you will get to the launch pads that send astronauts into space.
Back down on earth buses ferry you around the space centre, hop on and off as you please. But watch out for the alligators - they live in waterways along the roads. Dominating the landscape is the 525ft tall Vehicle Assembly Building where spacecraft are prepared before launch.
You will also drive past the launch control centre and the runway - one of the world's longest - where the Shuttle lands.
The space simulator I rode is at the nearby Astronaut Hall Of Fame, which was set up to honour the pioneer spacemen and inspire astronauts of tomorrow.
It is a real hands-on experience. Among the wealth of space memorabilia on show are space capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.
See if you can squeeze yourself into the Mercury one-man tin can - then wonder at the bravery of men who sat there on top of tanks of highly-explosive fuel.
More simulators give you a taste of walking on the moon and landing the Shuttle. You can explore the perils of a Martian mining colony, experience four times the normal G-force or board a life-size replica of the Shuttle.
The cargo bay has been fitted out like an airline cabin. It becomes a movie theatre offering a flight into the future when Sun World might include holidays in space. No, that's not as far-fetched as it sounds. American businessman Dennis Tito has already booked a passenger flight to the Mir space station and Titanic director James Cameron intends to go next summer.
Hollywood producer Mark Burnett is even working on a £30million Big Brother-style TV show, Destination Mir, where contestants will win trips into space.
One day, it could be you...
Hi-tech home for wildlife
THE Space Coast is almost completely detached from Florida by 170,000 acres of lagoons, lakes and rivers. But, surprisingly, the presence of the hi-tech industry helps to conserve endangered plants and animals.
More than 250 square miles of protected refuges provide a haven for wildlife and a birdwatcher's paradise. Watch pelicans and herons keeping a beady eye on fishermen as you take an evening stroll on Cocoa Beach Pier.
Alligators lurk in many stretches of water but a great way to spot them is skimming across the water on an exhilarating airboat ride from the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp on the St Johns River lagoon.
A more gentle experience is a solar-powered launch that glides through the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Watch for dolphins and the elusive manatee, a gentle sea relative of the elephant.
The resort of Cocoa Beach is a great base for enjoying Space Coast. Some of Florida's finest beaches are here and it is a mecca for surfers with the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop open 24 hours a day.
Seafood lovers should head for Dixie Crossroads for lobster, crab, crawfish, shrimps and enormous steaks. Another must is the spectacular brunch at the legendary Rusty's where the early astronauts hung out.